Monday, 15 March 2010

Stranger In A Small Town

There was a subtle allegory to be found in James Dean’s appearance in Rebel without A Cause. From its appearance in 1955 Dean’s Jim was something of a symbol for all the tortured youths of the era. It was the sort of dubious hero that they were willing to idolise and emulate. Jim was, after all, was the literal representation of what they felt like in society – strangers. The old theme of a young irrepressible disrupting a small town is not a new one. Even though it didn’t go on to cult standards Inge’s Picnic in 955 too had some similarities. It occurred in a day, but was the story of how a small-town was rocked by one man. The thing is, whereas Dean is an obvious paragon of youth and vitality William Holden at 37 isn’t such an obvious choice. The thing is, I’ve never been overly fond of Holden. He’s an actor that appears in countless good films, but I never really feel that they work because of him – his appearance often seems incidental and not crucial.
In Picnic Hal – a man who’s been on the wrong side of the lay passes through a small town on the day of their picnic. Naturally, the women are drawn to this mysterious lothario of sorts – just look at the DVD cover to see where they were going with it. I’m a big fan of ensemble films; I’m also a fan of films that occur in a day. It makes for good drama and seeing a bevy of talented actors working against each other is always fulfilling, Picnic fits the bill perfectly. If I ever decided to do a feature on forgotten films it’d be somewhere high on the list. It was a critical and commercial success back in its day and went on to earn a Best Picture nomination (the source play won a Pulitzer Prize) but I doubt many remember it or have even seen it. It’s a film that exists completely in its era, but that doesn’t make it any less good. People always ask “has a film aged well”. I don’t think the problem with Picnic is that it hasn’t aged well; it’s just obviously a play. Still, the attempts to make it cinematic are formidable – to me anyway.
There’s something to be said about films in this era, I don’t know if filmmakers were less savvy or audiences just loved the pat endings, but I always chuckle at how easily the endings of the two films come. It’s ironic that even though the entire of Rebel has stressed the generation gap between Jim and his parents it all seems to end so…effortlessly. It’s a bit like Picnic actually. In a way Picnic reminds me of those old Victorian novels that ended with every cast member getting married off to another. How good a marriage are Rosemary and Howard going to have? For that matter how strong are the relationships of Jim and Judy in Rebel and Hal and Madge in Picnic going to be. Natalie Wood doesn’t give her best performance in Rebel, but I’m hard pressed to call any of Wood’s performance bad. There is a graceful charm about her that always rouses me and though she always manages to have strong chemistry with her men (notably Beatty, Beymer and McQueen) the match with James Dean is just perfect. The poster couple of the era? Novak and Holden don’t have it as simple. He is 15 years her senior, and I don’t always believe the physacility of their relationship – which should be a given really. Still, the romance works much more than it fails, even if it seems to exists only in the narrative.
It’s strange, then, I like Picnic so much. It’s a bit like a “you had to be there” experience. As the casts act against each other as Rosalind Russell hams it up brilliantly but never loses touch of her character I still marvel that this cast went completely ignored by the Oscars but for O'Connell - who is fine, but never outstanding. Inge is a brilliant playwright and I always prefer the sentimentality and fun of Picnic to the sensibleness of Come Back, Little Sheba (even if Booth is excellent in it) and Rebel Without a Cause is sort of a sentimental favourite. I can’t hate a flick with Wood and Dean, and it’s place in history seems all but assured.

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